The cheesehead presidential candidate … or not

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Janesville) disappointed many Republicans but surprised few political observers when he reiterated Monday that he is not running for president in 2012.

“I sincerely appreciate the support from those eager to chart a brighter future for the next generation.  While humbled by the encouragement, I have not changed my mind, and therefore I am not seeking our party’s nomination for President,” Ryan said in a statement.

It’s not the first time this year Ryan has said no to a White House bid. But speculation about a Ryan candidacy has persisted, and according to some media reports, Ryan was taking a second look at the race in recent weeks.

The House budget chairman from Janesville has been urged to jump into the race by some GOP insiders dissatisfied with the current field, which is led by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann from Minnesota. Ryan’s fans within the party see him as a skilled, swing-state politician who can make the party’s best case for attacking the federal debt and overhauling entitlement programs. At the same time, some Democrats have argued that the Medicare changes he’s proposing would be a huge liability for a GOP ticket.

“I remain hopeful that our party will nominate a candidate committed to a pro-growth agenda of reform that restores the promise and prosperity of our exceptional nation,” said Ryan in the statement.

In an earlier interview this summer with the Journal Sentinel, Ryan cited at least two reasons for not running: his family (he has three young children) and wanting to see through, in Congress, the debate he started there with his controversial House budget plan, which makes sweeping changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

Ryan is the second Wisconsinite to rebuff presidential-candidacy advances of late. The other, and opposite, is former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who has been suggested as a primary opponent for President Obama next year by those who think Obama’s main fault is that he hasn’t been liberal enough. But Feingold reiterated Monday he isn’t running for anything in 2012.

The first thought is: Why would anyone in his or her right mind run for president? A candidate has to first have, to put it charitably, the supreme self-confidence that he or she could be president, for starters. But more importantly, he or she has to be willing to put his or her entire immediate and extended family (see Bush, Neil, and Carter, Billy), circle of friends and political and/or business associates through the wringer even before the primaries begin. Candidates must be willing to endure questions of a level of stupidity found only among non-sportswriters on Super Bowl Media Day. (See Obama, Barack, birth certificate.) And the national media’s obsession about reporting the most minute detail of presidential candidates’ lives, significant or not, illustrative or not, meaningful or not, pertinent or not, should make normal people run away from running. (The media does a great job of turning people off politics, particularly during presidential election cycles.)

As a history minor and political science major, this blog writer is going to throw some political history at the blog reader. Charles Gates Dawes might be known better for writing “Melody in A Major,” which became the pop song “It’s All in the Game,” but he was Calvin Coolidge’s vice president three decades after he owned the La Crosse Gas Light Co., though it’s unclear whether Dawes actually lived in Wisconsin. (Dawes’ son drowned in Geneva Lake at 21.) And so much has happened in the past four years that one forgets that Gov. Tommy Thompson actually briefly ran for president in 2008.

There have been a few other presidential candidates of note from Wisconsin. U.S. Sen. Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette ran as his Progressive Party (as opposed to Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party; the latter once called the former “a skunk who ought to be hanged” before World War I) presidential candidate in 1924 and got 17 percent of the vote and Wisconsin’s 13 electoral votes. U.S. Rep. John Schmitz of California, who was born in Milwaukee, ran as the American Independent Party presidential candidate in 1972. Schmitz (who was Richard Nixon’s Congressman) was too conservative to be a Republican, and for that matter, he was too extreme for the John Birch Society, which booted him out. Four years later, former Madison Mayor William Dyke ran as the AIP candidate for vice president while former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler ran for president as the Socialist Party candidate. (Then in 1980, Gov. Patrick Lucey, who defeated Dyke in the 1974 gubernatorial candidate, ran for vice president as an independent with U.S. Rep. John Anderson of Illinois.) Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, who was born in Madison, was a Reform Party candidate in 1996, but lost the nomination to the creator of the Reform Party, H. Ross Perot.

Abolitionist William Goodell, who lived in Janesville at the time of his death, ran for president as the Liberty Party candidate in 1852 and 1860. While La Follette was in Washington, East Troy native Eugene Wilder Chafin ran as the Prohibition Party candidate for president in 1908 and 1912, the last two of his nine unsuccessful attempts at office. (Perhaps being a Prohibition Party candidate from Wisconsin struck voters as too ironic to be successful.)

The one politician in my lifetime, from what I’ve read of him, who could have been a presidential candidate had he not died at just 40 was U.S. Rep. William Steiger (R–Oshkosh), the coauthor of the 1970s capital gains tax cut, the forerunner of the Ronald Reagan tax cuts. Steiger had a record of accomplishment in his 11 years in Congress; Feingold has a record of being a phony maverick and the author of the unconstitutional and reviled McCain–Feingold campaign finance law.

Becoming a presidential candidate is as easy as saying: I am a candidate for president. (Believe it or not, I forgot that I had written that.) Being a viable presidential candidate is a bit more complex. (Maybe that’s why I forgot that I had written that.) The experience we’ve had with a president who was a largely accomplishment-free U.S. senator suggests that accomplishment-free Washington politicians should not consider running for president, even if they do.

The presidency is the top of the executive branch of government. That suggests you need someone with executive-branch political experience, as demonstrated by former governors Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Unlike Washington, state governments are less sclerotic and mostly nimble enough to serve as laboratories for government reform, as Wisconsin was in welfare reform in the 1990s. Those who claim that governors lack foreign policy experience forget (1) governors’ roles in promoting foreign trade, including overseas trips, and (2) a Congressman or senator’s claim that he or she has foreign policy experience doesn’t mean that he or she has useful or pertinent foreign policy experience.

Most political experts would claim that Wisconsin isn’t big enough or important enough a state to spawn presidential candidates. (To which could be asked: And Arkansas is?) State government is an enterprise of more than $30 billion a year here. However, California, Texas, New York and even Illinois generate more national media attention than Wisconsin. (Not that that that’s necessarily a bad thing, mind you.) Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t meet presidential standards of appearance or communication ability, and if Walker doesn’t, neither does anyone else currently in state government. For Ryan to become a viable presidential candidate, he probably needs to be either Gov. Ryan or U.S. Sen. Ryan, not U.S. Rep. Ryan.

The ethnic makeup of this state (that is, our dour European ancestors) isn’t exactly media-friendly either. Can you imagine a Wisconsin politician with the sunny optimism and wit of Reagan (who once took partial blame for the early ’80s recession in that “for many years I was a Democrat“), or the guy-next-door empathy of Clinton, or the forward-looking inspiration of candidate Obama? (Do any of the Fleeing Fourteen look presidential to you?)

The other thing about Wisconsin — and it is not an attractive feature of ours — is this state’s cultural and institutional envy of success. While the Progressive Era did bring many worthwhile democratic reforms — direct election of U.S. senators, open primary elections, nonpartisan elections and open government — the Progressive Era started the war between government and business that continues in this state to this day. This has particularly been noticeable in this year’s Protestarama and Recallarama, where the facile answer to state government’s financial problems was to “Tax the rich!” instead of making the state a place where people can sell products and services and thus grow rich.

It would be too easy to blame Wisconsin Democrats or Fighting Bob himself for this. No, Wisconsin’s antipathy toward success goes back much farther, as a 2003 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute paper that asked the simple question of why Wisconsin’s taxes are so high revealed:

In reading Wisconsin’s history, what emerges is the Badger State’s rare combination of ethnic, religious, and political traditions. Mix Yankee founders and northern European immigrants; combine Protestant reformers and a strong Roman Catholic presence; add the labor activism of the industrial era to agrarian roots; douse liberally with the “Social Gospel,” the Wisconsin Idea, and Progressive-era legislation … and you have Wisconsin’s unusual brand of politics and government.

Just how unusual is suggested by Daniel Elazar, a leading student of states and federalism, who argues that the 50 states are pure or hybrid versions of three political cultures:

Individualistic: This culture “emphasizes the centrality of private concerns,” placing “a premium on limiting community intervention.” The individualistic culture originated in such mid-Atlantic, non Puritan states as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland; it spread west to become dominant in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri; and later it spread to such states as Nevada, Wyoming and Alaska.

Traditionalistic: This is a political culture that “accepts government as an actor with a positive role in the community,” but seeks to “limit that role to securing the continued maintenance of the existing social order.” Not surprisingly, the traditionalistic strain of American politics is a major factor in all of the border and southern states, extending west to Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Moralistic: The “moralistic” culture considers government “a positive instrument with a responsibility to promote the general welfare.” This culture is predominant in 17 states that stretch from New England through the upper Midwest to the Pacific coast — what several observers of American history and politics have called “Greater New England.” Even more significantly, this moralistic approach is virtually the only political culture found in nine states: Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and, not surprisingly, Wisconsin.

The states in this last group, Elazar notes, were “settled initially by the Puritans of New England and their Yankee descendants … [who] came to these shores intending to establish the best possible earthly version of the holy commonwealth. Their religious outlook was imbued with a high level of political concern.” Most significantly for states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, “they were joined by Scandinavians and other northern Europeans who, stemming from a related tradition (particularly in its religious orientation), reinforced the basic patterns of Yankee political culture, sealing them into the political systems of those states.”

You may notice that last group, which appears to have combined the worst features of older states’ political cultures, isn’t a breeding ground of successful presidential candidates. California has always had an arm’s-length relationship with government (state budgets require two-thirds approval of both houses of its legislature, and California gave birth to the anti-tax movement through its Proposition 13 property tax limits), and Texas, unlike Wisconsin, likes business and the “rich.” Wisconsin has been historically so anti-business that it is impossible to imagine a Wisconsinite having enough money to run for president.

Wisconsin’s overemphasis on politics all over the political spectrum means we’ll always be able to supply fringe presidential candidates. Serious presidential candidates? Not in the next several election cycles, and not with the current system, which puts the “fun” in “dysfunction,” by which presidents are elected.


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